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Clinton, Reno and Waco: the Real Story

In Sidney Blumenthal’s book The Clinton Wars (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003) he includes a passages summing up the 1993 Waco tragedy.

Writes Blumenthal (page 54):

“On February 28, 1993 agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms surrounded a compound outside Waco, Texas, housing a cult group called the Branch Davidians. Its leader, Vernon Howell, who called himself David Koresh after the biblical King David and Cyrus the Great, preached to his small band of followers that the federal government was the source of evil in the world and that they themselves represented the forces of goodness. All women were sexually shared with him as his ‘wives.’ Apocalyptic war must be waged against the government to bring about the reign of peace on earth and the second coming of the Messiah, who was himself. He stockpiled an arson of weapons. There were reports of sex abuse of children. In their effort to storm the compound four federal agents were killed. The FBI took the place of the ATF and returned on April 19, lobbing tear gas and bulldozing into the building. Suddenly, a fire consumed it. Eighty-nine people were killed, including Koresh and the children.”

Blumenthal also points out that despite criticism mostly from the political right the Clinton administration was exonerated of all charges and that the Branch Davidians were found to have to have been responsible for their own demise in the fire.

The timing of this published version of events at Waco by a key Clinton player is apropos. This spring marked the tenth anniversary of this infamous domestic slaughter, though it has been rarely acknowledged as a slaughter by the few remembrances published in April.

In memory of the 84 people killed at Waco, the standard narrative as promulgated by Blumenthal merits a challenge.

I remember Waco. In April 1993, I wrote a letter of encouragement to Attorney General Janet Reno urging her to stand tall in the shower of condemnation following the deadly FBI assault.

The media, President Clinton and government spokespersons had assured the public that in so many words the Branch Davidians were a bunch of gun-stocking, child-molesting, religious crazies, and that one David Koresh was a dangerous and depraved cult leader.

Taking the broadcast media and government spokespersons at face value I sympathized with Reno, the BATF, and the FBI in their apparent attempt to rescue children from the throes of a bunch of religious whackos. And I had little good will for the efforts of the religious-minded in general, much less these benighted clowns from Texas.

But the Waco attack and its aftermath demonstrate that a bias against the religious-minded among us can be as blinding and deafening as any religious dogma.

A gentle, earnest, and mildly unorthodox group of Americans gathering together and searching for meaning in their lives was deprived of their civil liberties, their religious community center, their home and their lives, and many of the grieving survivors were imprisoned, lied to and slandered afterwards.

Why? Because to make money in Texas some of the religious group sold and bought guns, and then reportedly screwed around with some of the guns making semi-automatics into automatics–not an exceedingly rate occurrence in Texas. And, it was reported as Blumenthal noted, that in accordance with their interpretation of Biblical scripture, David Koresh had parent-sanctioned sexual relationships with teenage women in the community in an apparent effort to repopulate the planet in their reading of God’s Biblical Prophecy. Hardly capital offenses.

Setting the Record Straight

Reno wrote me back a brief note a few weeks later that she supported a full investigation into the events and circumstances of the two deadly government assaults on Waco. Not surprisingly, the subsequent government-sponsored investigations –including former Republican Senator John Danforth’s (as special counsel for the department of Justice)–exonerated the BATF and FBI.

And a bullying political offensive launched by congressional Democrats in the 1995 Joint Sub-Committee Hearings, (with detestable performances by then-Rep. Chuck Schumer D-New York and Rep Tom Lantos D-California) aimed to head off the political damage to the Clinton administration through a mean-spirited attempt to smear anyone as part of the “lunatic fringe” who dared to question the BATF and FBI and ultimately the Clinton administration for its 1993 killing of 80 innocents.

Denial of civil liberties, rampant and deadly police/military power, cover-ups, and bullying political offensives. Does that sound like anything happening today? It surly does, except in 1993 we had an opposition party (as wrong-headed in most other matters as they were and are) with the requisite backbone to come out and call a spade a spade, and not be bullied into silence. Judged solely in terms of guts, a solid sense of right and wrong, and the truth of conviction, I will take the 1993-94 Republicans over today’s supine Democrats any day.

For the record, we can remember Waco by considering the following points of an alternative narrative of the FBI attack that is overwhelmingly supported by the evidence:

–The reported Koresh sexual irregularities were not under the jurisdiction of the BATF and FBI, and no evidence of sexual abuse was ever made public. The allegations were simply reported in the press after being pushed by some in the Waco religious community with a theological ax to grind against Koresh and echoed by the Clinton administration, and then becoming conventional wisdom.

–The whole pre-February 28 investigation and raid smelled of a political stunt against an easy target designed to protect and enhance the reputation of a near-rogue agency, the BATF. Basically, the BATF were looking for a loud and safe gunfight.

–That the FBI lied about the lethality of the CS gas (a type of tear gas) used against the Branch Davidian community center banned by the Geneva Convention for use in warfare.

–The FBI lied about the presence of fragmentation grenades at the scene, which have no use except to kill people.

–The FBI lied about shooting machine gun fire into the building.

–The FBI initially lied to Janet Reno about babies being beaten by the Branch Davidians.

For insightful analyses of Waco, recommended reading is: David Thibodeau. “A Place Called Waco” (BBS, 1999), lauded by Howard Zinn as “An extraordinary account of one of the most shameful episodes in recent American history.” And, James Tabor and Eugene Gallagher. “Why Waco, Cults and the Battle for Religious Freedom in America” (University of California Press, 1995), described by Ramsey Clark as “a critically important book… ”

But it is a film that graphically illustrates the horror of the attacks and the mendacity of the government line–the Grammy-winning, Oscar-nominated documentary “Waco: The Rules of Engagement (1997),” (www.waco93.com). To this day the executive producer Dan Gifford, a former reporter for ABC, CNN and the McNeil Lehrer Report, remains incensed at the way critics of the government assaults on Waco, including him, have been painted out-of-hand as somehow belonging to the lunatic fringe sympathetic to blowing up federal buildings.

Politics and Violence

Waco, Ruby Ridge, MOVE, Wounded Knee, Kent State, Jackson State, deadly attacks on citizens working for labor and civil rights, and the numerous wars against perceived international enemies of the moment. Government violence is government violence, irrespective of whom the victims are; and in this case that still directly affects the lives of 100s the American left and liberal/left’s response has been inadequate to hostile.

One historical truth is that the raison d’etre for war and government violence generally is a damn lie.

In 1994, with memories of Waco and the Republican and citizens’ vocal challenges to the Waco murders ringing in the political culture, Republicans swept into control of the Senate and House.

For Democrats today, there is perhaps a political lesson to be learned –Speak the truth loudly to those in power, and speak out for the victims of violence. For the survivors and the victims of Waco, there should have been a loud acknowledgment of the truth at Waco: You were murdered because you were different and were thought to be an easy target for a duplicitous and violent federal agency.

In Gifford’s film Waco: The Rules of Engagement, a powerful interview segment presents a sympathetic Sheriff Jack Harwell of McLennan County, Texas nearly in tears as he speaks of his experience with the Branch Davidians: “They were all good people. They had different beliefs than others, different beliefs than I have, maybe different beliefs than you have in their way of life, especially in their religious beliefs. But basically they were good peopleI was around them quite a lot. They were always nice, mannerly, they minded their own businessThey were always clean, and courteous. I liked them.”

In the face of continued government violence and its intimate relative, mendacity, one can take solace in the fact that in the work of a handful of people of all political stripes who identified with the victims of violence the truth can still emerge.

Democrats seeking the truth about war today and the path to an election victory in 2004 can take a cue from Waco–the American electorate does not like liars and accessories to mass killing in charge of its government. But the truth needs to be told.

A version of this article was published by CounterPunch in June 2003.

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